Healthly Minute: Incorporate Foam Rolling Into Your Fitness Routine

If you feel stiff and sore the morning after a hard workout – and who doesn’t from time to time? – you might want to try foam rolling. To learn more about how to add foam rolling to your fitness routine, check out these tips from Brent Mongar, a physical therapist at DMOS Orthopaedic Center.

What is foam rolling?

Foam rolling is a form of self-massage using a foam cylinder for self-massage. Foam rolling can help ease those tight, sore areas by relaxing your trigger points, increasing mobility, improving circulation, and helping your muscles recover more quickly. This massage technique, which can also be practiced by a massage therapist, physical therapist, or other professional, is known as myofascial release.

Should I try foam rolling?

Most people can safely incorporate foam rolling into their fitness routines, but Mongar says it is possible to injure yourself while foam rolling, especially for people with:

  • A past injury to an area they’d like to foam roll
  • Poor sensation due to diabetes, nerve damage, or peripheral neuropathy
  • Poor circulation or any vascular issue
  • Osteoporosis, pregnancy, disc disease, or bulging or deteriorating discs

If you have any of those conditions, consult your physical therapist or other medical professional before you try foam rolling on your own.

When should I foam roll?

You can foam roll before exercise, after exercise, or anytime you have sore, tight muscles.

How do I foam roll? 

With your foam roller on the floor, lay on top of it with moderate pressure on the muscle you want to roll. Roll slowly over the affected area. When you encounter an area that feels tight or sore, pause over that area for about five seconds, breathe deeply, and relax. Plan to work each sore muscle or muscle group for 20-30 seconds at a time. Then take a break, and follow up with a total of three to five repetitions in that area.

If rolling a specific area causes too much pain, shift the roller to a surrounding area that feels less tight and sore. As you start to relax the surrounding areas, you may be able to gradually move back to the initial sore area or trigger point.

Always roll directly on muscles. Avoid your joints, lower back, and neck.

A few good areas for foam rolling:

  • Upper back – Position the foam roller between your shoulder blades, bend your knees with your feet flat on the floor, lift your butt, keep your head and neck aligned with your back. Roll up and down from your mid-back to the top of your shoulder blades.
  • The side of your torso – Lie on your side with your bottom arm extended along the floor and the foam roller under your armpit. Roll up and down from your armpit to your waist. Roll first one side, then the other.
  • Quadriceps – Lie face down with the roller under your thighs, support yourself on bent elbows, and suspend your feet above the floor. Roll from your pelvic bone to above your knees, being sure to avoid the knee joint.
  • Iliotibial (IT) band – Lie on your side with the foam roller under your hip, cross your top leg over the bottom, and place your hands on the ground. Roll from the top of your hip to just above your knee. Roll first one side, then the other.
  • Hamstrings and gluteus muscles – Sit with the roller under your thighs and your legs extended. Roll from your glutes to just above your knees.
  • Calves – Sit with your legs extended with the roller under your calves, your butt raised off the floor, your hands on the floor behind you, and your weight in your hands. Roll from just below your knees to just above your ankles.
  • Shins – Get on your hands and knees with the foam roller under your shins. Roll from just above your ankles to just above your knees, as always, avoiding the knee joint.

Initially, you should foam roll only about every other day, Mongar said, gradually increasing until you’re foam rolling up to twice a day – both before and after your workouts.

Does foam rolling hurt?

When you use a foam roller on tight, sore muscles, you will likely experience discomfort, but it shouldn’t feel unbearable. Think of the type of soreness you might feel while gently stretching or getting a massage. If foam rolling causes more than mild discomfort, ease off the pressure or quit rolling that area.